Editor’s note: The following is an edited transcript of a talk given November 3 at Georgetown University in Washington by the Colombian journalist Hollman Morris. As the host and editorial director of Contravía (Against the Current), a weekly investigative news show, Morris, 42, has regularly taken on the Colombian government for the myriad human rights abuses committed in the last decade by the country’s military and its paramilitary allies.1 This work has earned him awards from Human Rights Watch (2007) and the city of Nuremburg (2011), as well as from NACLA, which awarded him the Samuel Chavkin Prize for Integrity in Latin American Journalism in October. But it also earned him public denunciations in 2009 from a popular president, whose own intelligence service targeted Morris as a part of a surveillance program and smear campaign. Death threats soon followed.
Contravía began airing in 2002, the same year that Álvaro Uribe took office as president. It was also the third year of Plan Colombia, the multibillion-dollar military aid package provided by the United States to assist the Colombian state in fighting the nearly half-century-old guerrilla insurgency of the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia–People’s Army (FARC-EP). Following the example set by George W. Bush, Uribe launched a Colombian version of the War on Terror, rounding up “subversives” under the rubric of his Democratic Security doctrine announced in 2003, and waging a scorched-earth campaign in the form of Plan Patriota, an initiative launched in 2004 aimed at extending the military’s reach throughout Colombia, making incursions into guerrilla-controlled territories.
While the government trumpeted its successes in routing the guerrillas, civilian casualties escalated: Extrajudicial executions of civilians carried out by state forces increased more than 67% between July 2002 to December 2007, according to a 2008 report to the United Nations by a human rights group.2 The number of people displaced by violence within Colombia’s borders reached almost 5 million.3 In 2008, the “false positives” scandal broke: The military was not only killing civilians but passing them off as combat casualties in order to inflate body counts and secure promotions.4 And the right-wing paramilitary groups, known to commit the vast majority of abuses in the country, achieved perhaps their highest level of incorporation into the structures of the state, infiltrating not only the security forces but also directly influencing the congress.5
As these developments took place, Morris was there each week covering them. But the price was dear. Morris was targeted by the Administrative Department of Security (DAS), a domestic intelligence service under the command of the president, in a “smear campaign,” as the DAS itself described it, according to documents released in 2010.6 The campaign against Morris and Contravía was just one component of a larger, systematic attempt by the Uribe government to silence dissenters—including human rights organizations, judges, members of congress, and journalists—through illegal surveillance and intimidation. In some cases the campaign was overtly partisan, with agents gathering information on support for Uribe’s bid to run for reelection despite the term limits under Colombian law.
But Uribe’s third term never materialized, and in the fall he took up an appointment at Georgetown, the Jesuit university known for its training in international affairs, as a Distinguished Scholar in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. (He was also appointed co-chair of the UN panel investigating the Israeli raid on the Gaza flotilla.7) Students and faculty at Georgetown, together with allies in the Washington area and beyond, quickly organized to both pressure the university to sever its ties with Uribe and to bring charges against him for human rights violations. The Adios Uribe Coalition (uribe-georgetown.org) was formed, and it held a series of events in November to raise awareness about Uribe’s presence on campus.
Meanwhile, Morris had also come to the United States, to take up a fellowship at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism. He gave the following talk on the invitation of the Adios Uribe Coalition, which provided NACLA a full transcript in Spanish. He accompanied the talk with video clips of Uribe denouncing journalists and human rights defenders as terrorist accomplices.8
Translation, editing, and annotations by NACLA.
The adolescence of my generation was marked by the upsurge of paramilitarism, by the assassination of three presidential candidates, and by the killings of the most representative leaders of the defense of human rights in Colombia. That’s why, in the Jesuit schools where I was educated, the idea was started to hold a Week for Peace every year, in which we would hold events aimed at building the commitment to achieve peace in Colombia and respect for human rights. This is where my commitment to the culture of peace and human rights comes from. And I, like many Colombians here today—and like their parents, my parents, my grandparents, my great grandparents, even my children—we have not known one day of peace in Colombia. Not one single day. The war, the violence in our country, has affected many of us directly. And it has touched everybody indirectly. . . .
In a workshop in 2001, the late Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski taught a group of us Latin American journalists that our profession’s commitment, especially in this kind of situation of war and violence, is to those who have no voice. And generally those who have no voice are the poor, and it is they who are the victims of conflicts. Since the beginning of my career, I’ve practiced journalism that is dedicated to making visible and giving voice to these victims, listening to them and trying to cover the story of Colombia’s conflict not from the press room or from the military bases, not from guerrilla camps, not from paramilitary encampments, but only from the point of view of the victims.
In Colombia, right now, there are 25 million poor people and more than 7 million living in absolute misery. I tell you these statistics because I believe that we must practice journalism dedicated to them. My journalism takes into account the voice of that poverty, and—I say it a lot—poverty does not have a voice. The invisible do not have a voice, the disappeared do not have a voice, the victims of war do not have a voice. And so my generation of journalists began to create a journalism that took human rights into account. In our work we began to realize that, first, the coverage of the conflict could not be made up solely of statistics; rather, we had to name names, we had to make visible the tears and the sadness, but also the hope. Second, we realized that Colombia urgently needed cameras out where the war is taking place, not in our capital, Bogotá, but in the mountains, in the regions, the countryside. We have to listen to the story from the regions. And, well, that’s what we did in 2002, when Contravía began.
I and other journalists believed that when a country goes to war, journalists should be on the battlefield. Why? Because, as history has taught us for some time, the majority of victims in an armed confrontation are civilians: women, men, children. Journalists have to go to the scenes of Plan Patriota, Plan Colombia; that’s where we have to be. Nevertheless, a good number of Colombian journalists did not do this. Instead, they joined the war. They believed that the best way to help the country was not to show criticism, not to show the security forces’ abuses during this war. And when you make war in an excessive and erratic way, the only result is the death of innocents, of civilians. And what we are seeing is the result: more than 2,000 civilian victims known as “false positives.”
I wonder, I asked several colleagues, why are we finding out today, years later, about the false positives? Why are the human rights organizations the ones that discovered the false positives, and not us, the journalists? Where were we? No, we were in military helicopters, taken from Bogotá to the countryside, where they showed us 10 dead people, guerrillas. Twenty bodies there, 30 over there, all supposedly guerrillas. And the headlines would read: “The Triumphant Army,” “The Army Is Winning This War.” And that was what we were feeding into, without following the journalistic maxim of doubt, confrontation, verifying the facts. How could this happen to Colombian journalism? How could this have happened to us?
And Democratic Security—everyone behind Democratic Security! Democratic Security began with mass arbitrary detentions. The country’s rural zones where the guerrillas operate became laboratories of arbitrary detentions: Arauca, Montes de María, Urabá, to give a few examples. In one afternoon there were 300 detentions in the municipality of Quinchía. In one afternoon, 300: farmers, young people, workers, disabled people, men, and women, 300. All “terrorists” who belonged to the ELN. Most were detained for two years. Someone might say, But two years isn’t anything. In two years a life can be destroyed. Those 300 people had families, they had children, parents, wives, and husbands. You have to multiply these 300 by four. . . .
Today I’ll tell you the example of Potosí, a rural district [vereda] in the municipality of Cajarmarca, Tolima department, controlled by the FARC. After the Colombian army massacred a campesino family there in April 2004, for the first time in the years that I’ve covered this war, I saw a president arrive immediately at the scene.9 And the news people arrived and filmed the president there with the mother. What happened, señora? She replied: We came out and the military patrol began to shoot, and I realized my family was dead. A soldier was there saying, Mr. President, you have to know the truth. It was an accident. Five people were killed, among them four minors. Again the children, again the children. So that same day, the president gave a speech in the evening. Never, never had I seen a presidential speech given for five dead people. Never had I seen one for 30, 40, 25, but five deaths. The army general explained what happened: Mr. President, and to the Colombian people, it was foggy. The soldiers were told to stop shooting. We had information that they were guerrillas. The soldiers didn’t stop shooting, and unfortunately they were civilians. The president: I believe this was an error.
Public opinion that day was calm. The country slept soundly. We have a president who takes responsibility for mistakes, who confronts problems and tells the country the truth. The truth—the truth is always hidden. You have to go digging for it. The truth was quite different from the official version that was broadcast that night, reaching the farthest corners of the country. We learned the truth later. A military patrol forced the campesino family out of their house. The soldiers took everyone’s wallets and argued over who would kill the minors. And they shot and killed them.
But if you were to grab a Colombian, somewhat informed, and ask, What happened in Cajamarca?, they would say, It was an accident. The truth remains hidden, and that continues to greatly hurt the country. It doesn’t allow us to analyze the country we have. It doesn’t allow us to understand the magnitude of the barbarity we are experiencing. And here is another point. I am convinced the government knew that under Democratic Security—which is neither secure nor democratic—it knew that to bring the war to all corners of the country, it was going to commit serious human rights violations. The government realized that the important observers, human rights groups, social leaders, and independent journalists would be there watching closely as that policy developed. So the government had to attack them, make them part of the structure of the enemy. And to accomplish that, they launched a systematic campaign of threats and smears.
Here is what I want you to see. Pay close attention to these statements and tell me if this is what should happen in any democracy in the world [plays video of Uribe speaking to a group of soldiers September 8, 2003, as a new air force commander takes office].
Political hustlers in the service of terrorism who cowardly wave the flag of human rights in an attempt to bring terrorists in Colombia back into the spaces that law enforcement and citizens have taken away from them . . . When the terrorists start to feel weak, they immediately send out their spokesmen to talk about human rights. Listen, these criticisms and reports have been taken from the FARC’s webpage. They have no shame or limits; they publish books in Europe full of lies and slander. They know that their only weapon is slander hypocritically hidden behind human rights.
“Slander hypocritically hidden behind human rights”; their “reports have been taken from the FARC’s webpage” . . . [again plays video of Uribe speaking, this time from a press conference held February 3, 2009].
Freedom of the press is one thing; using a press pass to become a publicist for terrorism is another. . . . The journalist Morris has failed to fulfill his duties. This is one of the serious things, one of the accusations that must be made against the journalist Morris. . . . They shield themselves behind their status as journalists to be permissive accomplices of terrorism . . . and they became simply an exaltation of terrorism. . . .
A little bit of context on this statement. I was present when the FARC released three or four captured soldiers. I was there at the moment they were set free. So, yes, many will ask, Why were you there? And I have to answer: because it is my work, because I am a journalist. Yes, but why did you arrive there first? Why did the FARC give you the coordinates? They didn’t give me the coordinates; they took me there. That is my work. And this makes me a guerrilla? Or is it that I was following the maxim of my profession, that journalists must be present at the events they cover? This government hated the fact that journalists were present in the combat zone. It wasn’t in their interest for journalists to be there. The government was bothered, irritated, and at the moment of Uribe’s speech, not one image of my material had aired. It was broadcast three months later. I had made not one statement, nothing, but nevertheless they had to aim the artillery at Hollman Morris. They had to send a message to journalists: Hey, watch out if you dare enter the conflict zone to show a truth and a reality that isn’t controlled by the Ministry of the Interior, by Mr. President, by Mr. State.
There wasn’t anything that bothered Uribe more than somebody undermining his line. And for that, this attack on Hollman Morris, which started a debate in journalism that led some columnists to speak of “the role of journalists in the conflict”—no, what other role is there than reporting the news in the location where it takes place? You can judge me when you see my reports, my work, broadcast on the air. If you see a facade for war, for terrorism, for the FARC, well, fine.
The report on the hostage release, later broadcast on the History Channel in Colombia, was simply a rejection, by a Colombian, of war.10 Some would have preferred that I had reported from the headquarters of the Ministry of Defense, with their view, but I didn’t spend five years at the university to learn that. They taught me that you had to see the faces of the conflict, that you had to be in the places where the events were happening. And doing that was what caused this stream of accusations against me, that led in the last year to serious threats against my life and against the lives of the Contravía team. The president knew what he was doing: a direct press conference for the entire country, calling me a terrorist. The president thought he was going to have me lynched the next day.
After the president’s statements there were some very painful consequences for us. I understood that the kind of journalism I did in the countryside, in the mountains, was going to be much more dangerous after that. In whatever river, or curve on a faraway road, some sort of “accident” could happen. From that moment on, we never again left Bogotá. For me this was enormously sad, because of the faraway communities, because we would lose their voice. This was the key result.
The president’s slanders were accompanied by his secret service, the DAS, which is under the command of the president, not the Ministry of Defense, nor the army; the DAS was part of the presidency. The Attorney General, not Hollman Morris, discovered that beginning at the very least in 2003, the DAS has carried out an international and national operation to smear, sabotage, threaten, and psychologically destabilize all the political opposition to Uribe. This became known as the “the DAS wiretaps [chuzadas]” scandal. The entire intelligence organization of the Colombian state was committed to a national and international operation aimed at, I repeat, neutralizing all political opposition. What was our sin? Why an operation of that magnitude? Our sin was thinking differently; it was believing that democracy is born through dissent, debate. Never, never, did we imagine the size of such an operation. And it was then that the apparent accidents—for example, robberies in the homes of our families—started to make sense.
From my point of view, the wiretaps are the greatest scandal of persecution against political opposition, dissent, and independent journalism. According to the attorney general, the objective—[holding up documents] these are the secret police documents that were seized as part of the judicial process in Colombia—the objective was to neutralize everyone who thought differently. Imagine, imagine how huge this is. Police in charge of hunting down everyone who thought differently. There are photographs of people protesting Uribe that say “young man protesting Uribe, follow up, this address . . . ” The worst of the dictatorships from the Southern Cone or from the Gestapo. The same practices, but it’s the oldest democracy on the continent.
On one of the pages, one finds orders to intercept and follow José Miguel Vivanco, director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch, and members of the José Alvear Restrepo Collective, a human rights NGO, among others. As far as Hollman Morris, Contravía, and my family, they dedicated Operation Puerto Asís to the total surveillance of all our activities, according to the documents. In these archives I found files on the life of my parents. I found the robbery that they committed against my mother, a 70-year-old woman. When she was picking up her pension payment, some men approached her, and she innocently said, Ah, you must be the people who are coming on my son’s behalf. Here’s the money I promised him. They were DAS agents, seeing how far they could go for their superiors. In the files released to me by the prosecutor, I found photos of my children, I found photos of my siblings, and I found transcripts from my lectures—all of my lectures—that I gave in universities, in places like this. I found them with the detectives’ notes in the margins. They said that my lectures were “an exaltation of popular uprising.”
I said this was a national and international operation. The official DAS document of Operation Liberty and Order says, “Objective: Neutralize influence of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Strategies: smear and sabotage.” I repeat, this is not what I myself say, this is not something I’m making up. These are documents from the prosecutor’s office. I’m not making this up. What I am doing is raising my voice about this fact. And I am going to raise it in as many public places as possible, because I’ve dedicated myself for almost five years to ending this war. And we don’t have the power of the state, nor do we want or believe in the power of weapons to create change. We only have the power of the word, of our word. We have memory on our side, to say and to try to bring it to as many public spaces as possible and denounce these things, and force justice to be done.
E-mails from the last few years [holding up documents]. They intercepted more than 1,000 of my e-mails, and all of them have notes from the DAS. It was striking that several e-mails said, “Hollman Morris, President, Process.” President. There are others that say, “Deliver to the president.” A document that says “reserved” and that reads, “the position of the court on reelection”; the election turned into an obsession for the Uribe government. The reelection could have been approved in the court by the votes of the magistrates. And so one of the documents has the position of every one of the magistrates concerning the reelection. Example: “Manuel José Cepeda, Liberal—in favor of reelection.”
The DAS operations also targeted North American citizens. E-mails between Hollman Morris and a staffer of Senator Sam Farr (D-Calif.) were intercepted. My entire statement before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in October 2005 was intercepted. There was also monitoring of Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the Latin American Working Group. And the million-dollar question is, Did the president know? The man in charge of the security organization that pretended Colombia was a “more secure” country? That man didn’t know what his police, the DAS, was doing? What a terrible coincidence that we were the enemies and targets. I don’t have the proof, but I can assure you that the ex-president has dirty hands, and he has to answer for it.
On the ninth floor of the DAS they conspired to sabotage and smear Hollman Morris. Martha Leas, the former assistant director of analysis for the DAS, confessed before the courts that everything happened in the offices of the DAS. The worst part of all this is that we won’t know when the intercepts will end. These campaigns attempt to destroy our reputations, our honor, and our families, and they were successful with more than 300 people and organizations, only because they talked about human rights. Can you imagine the damage this caused? If one talks of “terrorist” peace. The seed of hate, intolerance, does not allow us to forge a new country.
To finish: Despite the damage that this has caused, I am privileged to be able to be at Harvard with the support of my parents. And the only thing that comes out wounded in reality is democracy. We say no to hate, to resentment, but we seek justice and the preservation of memory. We have risked our lives to continue to preserve memory. And because we have memory, we will continue against the current—porque tenemos memoria, continuaremos en contravía.
1. More than 400 examples of Morris’s work can be found at youtube.com/user/morrisproducciones.
2. Cited in report made to the UN Universal Periodic Review by the Human Rights and Humanitarian Law Observatory of the Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination Group, as noted in “Extra-judicial Executions: A Reality That Cannot Be Covered Up” (2007–8), fact sheet, available at ddhhcolombia.org.co.
3. See the Colombia Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre’s figures at the webpage dedicated to Colombia at internal-displacement.org.
4. See National Security Archive, “ ‘Body Count Mentalities’: Colombia’s ‘False Positives’ Scandal, Declassified,” Electronic Briefing Book no. 266, gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB266/index.htm.
5. See Jasmin Hristov, “Legalizing the Illegal: Paramilitarism in Colombia’s ‘Post-Paramilitary’ Era,” NACLA Report on the Americas 42, no. 4 (July/August 2009): 12–19, 38–39.
6. Some of the documents can be viewed at Adam Isacson, “Files Point to DAS “Political Warfare,” blog post, April 14, 2010, cipcol.org/?p=1467.
7. Al Jazeera, “Israel ‘to Assist’ Flotilla Inquiry” (online), August 2, 2010.
8. The video, titled “Álvaro Uribe Vélez Speeches Referring to Human Rights Defenders and Journalists,” can be viewed at youtube.com/watch?v=Uod82uOxoaE.
9. Morris’s coverage of the Potosí massacre is available online: “CONTRAVÍA: Caso Cajamarca - Otro ‘falso positivo’ (Parte I),” youtube.com/watch?v=h6wSaGD1OTg; “CONTRAVÍA: Caso Cajamarca - Otro ‘falso positivo’ (Parte II),” youtube.com/watch?v=hSwBYtoQyrs&feature=related.
10. Morris’s report on the hostage release, titled Colombia, hora de la paz, can be viewed at youtube.com/watch?v=87HQdNyrIfQ.